Australia’s national opera company was born when a band of idealists — butchers, pharmacists, newsagents — gave up their day jobs to celebrate the 1956 Mozart bicentenary with a season of four of his operas.
Today, Opera Australia (OA) is Australia’s largest arts employer, with annual seasons showcasing the world’s great opera and music theatre repertoire, a touring program staging works in regional Australia, and with performance broadcasts in cinemas and on national television and radio.
It’s been a magnificent journey over the last 60 years. In 1965, nine years after the company’s inception, theatrical entrepreneur JC Williamson put it on the international opera map when he used its chorus, staff and some of the principal singers in a season starring Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti. In 1967, the New South Wales state government gave a grant towards the formation of a permanent state company. The Sydney Opera House opened in 1973 with Prokofiev's War and Peace. Sutherland brought glory to the new house when she sang the title role in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor there three years later. In 1982, she performed as Violetta in La Traviata at the inaugural Opera in the Domain. Richard Meale's 1986 Voss, based on Nobel winner Patrick White's novel and with libretto by David Malouf, united some of the biggest names in local arts to stage a milestone of Australian-made opera. Baz Luhrmann’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream subsequently became the first Australian opera production to be performed internationally, at 1994’s Edinburgh Festival. Two years later, the company, then known as the Australian Opera, merged with the Victoria State Opera to form Opera Australia, under the artistic directorship of Moffatt Oxenbould.
In the 21st century, under artistic director Lyndon Terracini, OA has won the hearts of ever larger and more diverse audiences, giving more than 600 performances for more than half a million people every year. In 2012, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour was launched with a spectacular production of La Traviata, followed by Carmen, Madama Butterfly, Aida and Turandot in successive years. OA has also embraced musicals as part of its repertoire, most recently with a fêted Lincoln Center production of South Pacific (2012) and followed by The King and I, Anything Goes and My Fair Lady, directed by Julie Andrews. High-quality core repertoire continues: Co-productions with major international houses have become a cornerstone of company repertoire since OA staged the 2013 world première of La Fura Dels Baus' production of Verdi's A Masked Ball, and the company’s first Ring Cycle, directed by Neil Armfield, opened at Melbourne's State Theatre in 2013. OA capped off a jubilant 60th anniversary year with a revival of its Ring Cycle.